The Embroidered Vestments of Helena Wintour

A catalogue of an exhibition from the Collections and Archives of the British Jesuit Province, Stonyhurst College, Ushaw College, the Ashmolean Museum and the Auckland Castle Trust, held at Auckland Castle.
16th October 2015-11th April 2016
Essays by Jan Graffius, Clare Marsland and Joe Reed
Notes on Exhibits by Jan Graffius
Edited by Jan Graffius

84pp, paperback
240 x 240mm
ISBN 9780955359255

Out of stock



We are Catholic Virgins: We scorn to change with the times. AD 1674

This renowned inscription at Aldcliffe, Lancashire, in memory of the stubborn recusant sisters, Eleanor and Catherine Dalton, would have served equally well as Helena Wintour’s epitaph in 1671.

A proud, strong, and prickly woman, Helena was remarkably resourceful. She faced the many trials and sorrows of her life with a deep, intelligent and informed faith, to which was added the gift of a rare creative ability. The exhibition celebrated in this catalogue brings together her remarkable body of work, divided on the day of her death against her wishes and not seen together in one place until now, three hundred and forty-four years later.

This was the catalogue for an exhibition held at Auckland Castle October 2015 – April 2016. It was made possible through the remarkable generosity of those who have lent precious and much-loved artefacts: Stonyhurst College, the British Jesuit Province and the British Jesuit Archives, Douai Abbey, Ushaw College, the Ashmolean Museum and Gary Bankhead.

Professor Peter Davidson, of Campion Hall, Oxford, writes in the Preface:

This exhibition offers the first chance to see all the surviving works of one of the most remarkable women visual artists of early-modern Britain. In their accomplishment and range Helena Wintour’s textiles rival the paintings of her younger contemporary Mary Beale: in originality and intellectual depth, it could be argued that they surpass them. Helena Wintour’s textiles are autonomous works of art: although they both controlled the content of their needleworks, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury employed “broiderers” to draw out their designs for them. All the evidence points to Helena Wintour’s works being under her control at every stage of the process of making. Her relation to contemporary books of emblems and meditations is complex and profound, but her sources are transformed absolutely in the boldness of her design, just as the gold and jewels of her inheritance were transformed in her hands into the burning stars and glimmering flames which adorn these unique vestments.

Her art is a life’s work, and a journal of a life’s spirituality, interior meditation in the Mysterious and Delicious Garden of the Sacred Parthenes. Although her years passed in obscurity in the country she was more intellectually aware of the international visual and symbolic languages of the baroque world than were many of her most privileged British contemporaries. Her corpus of work is a demonstration of inner strength of no common order: a woman from a family shadowed by her father’s execution, devoting all her resources and energies to the support and adornment of the proscribed services of the Roman Catholic Church, apparently embarking on the corpus of work exhibited here in the most inauspicious days of the Interregnum. These textiles do not only represent a perfected art, but a meditated intellectual defiance, oppressions countered with ingenuity, beauty and love. In memoria eterna erit justi.